Connect with us

Middle East

Qatari Wahhabism vs. Saudi Wahhabism and the perils of top-down change

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

A multi-domed, sand-coloured, architectural marvel, Doha’s biggest and national mosque, symbolizes Qatar’s complex and troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia. Its naming six years ago after an eighteenth century Islamic scholar, Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of one of Islam’s most puritan strands, raised eyebrows, sparked controversy, and has since become an episode in the latest Gulf crisis.

The naming of the mosque that overlooks the Qatar Sports Club in Doha’s Jubailat district was intended to pacify more traditional segments of Qatari society as well as Saudi Arabia, which sees the tiny Gulf state, the only other country whose native population is Wahhabi, as a troublesome and dangerous gadfly on its doorstep. Qatar long challenged the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam, but now together with its other nemesis, the United Arab Emirates, offers an unacknowledged model for Saudi reforms envisioned by the kingdom’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

That doesn’t mean that Qatar no longer poses a challenge. If anything, it poses a greater challenge with its opposition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s counterrevolutionary strategy in the Middle East and North Africa even if its vision of a Gulf ruled by more forward-looking, socially less conservative autocrats is one it shares with Prince Mohammed and the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The challenge prompted the two princes to impose a six-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott on Qatar. The crisis is likely to figure prominently in the first meeting of Gulf leaders since the imposition of the boycott at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Kuwait on Tuesday.

By naming the mosque after Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Qatar reaffirmed its adherence to the Wahhabi creed that goes back to nineteenth century Saudi support for the rise to dominance of the Al Thani clan, the country’s hereditary ruling family, even if its social norms and foreign policy differed sharply from practices in the kingdom.

In fact, social change in Qatar in the last two decades contrasted starkly with efforts by King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah to maintain as much as possible of the status quo prior to the popular revolts that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 in demand of greater freedom, transparency and accountability. They also diverged radically from King Khalid and King Fahd’s earlier empowerment of the ultra-conservatives in response to the 1979 Iranian revolution and attack by Saudi militants on the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

A traditional Gulf state and a Wahhabi state to boot, Qatari conservatism was everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s long-standing puritan way of life. Qatar did not have a powerful religious establishment that could enforce ultra-conservative social norms, nor did it implement absolute gender segregation. Non-Muslims could practice their faith in their own houses of worship and were exempted from bans on alcohol and port. Qatar became a sponsor of the arts including a Doha version of the Tribeca Film Festival and host the state-owned Al Jazeera television network that revolutionized the region’s controlled media landscape and became one of the world’s foremost global broadcasters. The UAE boasts many of the same traits minus the history of an ultra-conservative strand of Islam having dominated its history.

Qatar’s projection of a different approach to Wahhabism is rooted in the DNA of the Qatari state that from its founding was a determined not to emulate the kingdom and reforms that were initiated two decades before Prince Mohammed appeared on the scene. Privately, Qataris distinguish between their “Wahhabism of the sea” as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s “Wahhabism of the land.”

Political scientists Birol Baskan and Steven Wright argue that on a political level, Qatar has a secular character similar to Turkey and in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia, which they attribute to Qatar’s lack of a class of Muslim legal scholars. The absence of scholars was in part a reflection of Qatari ambivalence towards Wahhabism that it viewed as both an opportunity and a threat: on the one hand it served as a tool to legitimise domestic rule, on the other it was a potential monkey wrench Saudi Arabia could employ to assert control. Opting to generate a clerical class of its own would have enhanced the threat because Qatar would have been dependent on Saudi scholars to develop its own. That would have produced a religious establishment steeped in the kingdom’s austere theology and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that would have demanded a similar arrangement.

As a result, Qatar lacks the institutions that often held the kingdom back. Similarly, Qatar does not have families known for producing religious scholars. Qatari religious schools are run by the ministry of education not as in the Saudi kingdom by the religious affairs authority. They are staffed by expatriates rather than Qataris and attended by less than one per cent of the total student body and only ten per cent of those are Qatari nationals. By the same token, Qatari religious authority is not institutionally vested. Qatar has for example no Grand Mufti as does Saudi Arabia and various other Arab nations; it only created a ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments 22 years after achieving independence.

All of this should make Prince Mohammed and Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, both men in their thirties, natural allies were it not for their fundamentally different views of geopolitics and place in the world. Underlying the UAE-Saudi-led boycott was a shift in Saudi perceptions of the challenge posed by Qatar since 2011 revolts from one that was to a significant degree religious and social in nature to one that was exclusively political and geopolitical. That was  evident in the conditions Saudi Arabia and the UAE set for ending the crisis. The two Gulf states’ demands amounted to Qatar putting itself under Saudi and UAE tutelage.

Nonetheless, Prince Mohammed’s efforts to reform Saudi Arabia with his so far limited roll-back of puritan restrictions amounted in fact to a first step in adopting a more Qatari version of Wahhabism even if that is something he is unlikely to acknowledge. His initial measures – lifting the ban on women’s driving and attending male sporting events; rolling back the powers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or Mutaween, the religious police; and his introduction of long forbidden forms of modern entertainment – are as much in line with Qatar’s as well as the UAE’s social norms that are more liberal than those of the kingdom but not liberal by any stretch of the imagination as they were inspired by his Western-educated Saudi associates and army of Western consultants.

Qatar in particular, but in many ways the UAE as well, is what Mohammed would like Saudi Arabia to be. Qatar had the advantage that it projected to young Saudis and others the ability to change without completely dumping ultra-conservative religious precepts that have shaped culture and belief systems. It projected a vision of a less restrictive and less choking conservative Wahhabi society that grants individuals irrespective of gender greater opportunities.

Qatar today is a long way from the mid-1990s when Qatari women, like in Saudi Arabia until recently, were banned from driving, voting or holding government jobs. Qatari women occupy prominent positions in multiple sectors of society. With women accounting for 53 percent of the work force, Qatar outranks Middle Eastern and North African states by a large margin. Only Kuwait with 48 and the UAE with 42 percent come close. It’s a picture that long juxtaposed starkly with that of its Wahhabi big brother. In doing so, Qatar threw down a gauntlet for the kingdom’s interpretation of nominally shared religious and cultural beliefs – a challenge Prince Mohammed appears to have embraced.

“I consider myself a good Wahhabi and can still be modern, understanding Islam in an open way. We take into account the changes in the world and do not have the closed-minded mentality as they do in Saudi Arabia,” Abdelhameed Al Ansari, the dean of Qatar University’s College of Sharia, a leader of the paradigm shift, told The Wall Street Journal in 2002. Twenty years earlier, Mr. Al Ansari was denounced as an “apostate” by Qatar’s Saudi-trained chief religious judge for advocating women’s rights. “All those people who attacked me, most of them have died, and the rest keep quiet,” Mr. Al Ansari said.

Qatar’s long-standing projection of an alternative was particularly sensitive as long as Saudi Arabia refused to openly embrace notions of social change even if things like allowing women to drive were long debated quietly. It was also potentially dangerous with the kingdom’s religious establishment worried that key members of the ruling family were toying with radical ideas like a separation of state and religion.

The religious establishment voiced its concern in the spring of 2013 in a meeting with King Abdullah two days after his son Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, declared that “religion (should) not enter into politics.” Responding to Prince Mutaib in a tweet, Grand Mufti ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh warned that “whoever says there is no relationship between religion and politics worships two gods, one in the heavens and one on earth.”

Prince Mutaib, the commander of the National Guard, the only military unit that was not controlled by Prince Mohammed, was among those swept up in the crown prince’s recent purge. He was reportedly last week allowed to leave his gilded cage in Riyadh’s posh Ritz Carlton Hotel after paying $1 billion to the government to settle allegations of corruption.

In a similar vein, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of intelligence and ambassador to the United States and Britain first hinted at a possible separation 11 years ago when he cited verse 4:59 of the Qur’an: “O you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.” Turki suggested that the verse referred exclusively to temporal authority rather than both religious and political authority.

Prince Mohammed has brought the debate about whither Saudi Arabia into the open and signalled his intent to take the kingdom into the 21st century much along the lines of what Qatar and the UAE have done. He has left the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment no choice but to endorse his moves even if they likely reinforce the fears of an older generation of scholars resistant to change and over time may spark opposition from younger generations critical of his autocratic style of government, the bending over backwards of their elders to accommodate the prince, and the possibility that he will deprive religious figures of whatever political influence they have left.

Qatar’s model, like that of the UAE, strokes with Prince Mohammed’s vision in more than just the promotion of wider social margins. The Saudi crown prince. like Sheikh Tamim and the UAE’s Prince Mohammed, are engaged in an effort to upgrade autocracy and allow it to respond to 21st century social and economic demands while maintaining absolute political control and repressing all forms of dissent. With his arrests in September 2017 of Islamic scholars, judges, and activists and his purge of the ruling family, senior officials, and prominent businessmen in November of that year, Mohammed was following on a far grander scale in the footsteps of Qatar’s former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who silenced opposition to reforms.

In one instance, Sheikh Hamad arrested in 1998 Abdulrahman al Nuaimi, a religious scholar who criticized his advancement of women rights. Mr. Al Nuaimi was released three years later on condition that he no longer would speak out publicly. He has since been designated by the US Treasury as “a Qatar-based terrorist financier and facilitator who has provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al-Qa’ida and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen for more than a decade.” Saudi Arabia and the UAE included Mr. Al-Nuaimi on a list of 59 individuals Qatar would have to act against if it wanted to get the boycott lifted.

Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami was sentenced in November 2011 to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” His sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years in prison and he was finally pardoned in 2016.

Mr. Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine”. It celebrated the overthrow in 2011 by a popular revolt of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that was dubbed the Jasmine Revolution.

More recently, Qatari authorities reportedly raided the home of Sheikh Sultan Bin Suhaim Al-Thani, a 33-year old nephew of former emir Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad Al-Thani, who was deposed by Sheikh Hamad in 1995. Sheikh Sultan had aligned himself with the Saudi and UAE demands and positioned himself in opposition to Sheikh Tamim.

Prince Mohammed’s unacknowledged embrace of the Qatari model did not stop him from employing Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious establishment to fire a shot in the prelude to the Gulf crisis by demanding in May 2017 that the Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab Mosque in Doha be renamed. The demand, put forward in a statement by 200 descendants of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, came days after what US intelligence officials described as a UAE-engineered hack of Qatari state media involving fake news reports that put inflammatory foreign policy statements in the mouth of Sheikh Tamim, which in turn prompted the Saudi-UAE-led boycott. “We…demand that the name of the mosque be changed for it does not carry its true Salafi path,” the statement said.

Simmering religious anger at being manipulated and opposition from within the Saudi ruling family may however not be Prince Mohammed’s foremost problem. Alongside his autocratic style, Prince Mohammed is likely to discover, according to political scientist Calvert W. Jones, that a fundamental flaw in the Qatari and UAE development model is the fact that social engineering is easier said than done and that flashy projects like the creation of new, cutting edge 21st century cities, luring or building world-class universities and museums, and the promotion of tolerance won’t do it.

“The problem is that authoritarian modernizers cannot simply command a new attitude among their citizens. Opening cinemas and relaxing gender segregation may impress Saudi youth, but a new economy requires far more. Reformers in the UAE eventually realized — as Saudi rulers will discover, too — that they needed to adapt both the mind-sets and the skill sets of the rising generation. In countries where people see a government job as a right, that means reshaping the very nature of citizenship,” Ms. Jones wrote in The Washington Post.

Qatari and Emirati promotion of knowledge, culture and innovation in a bid to create globalized citizens have succeeded in developing civic attitudes including notions of tolerance and volunteerism but failed to alter economic perceptions of the rentier state rather than the private sector as the creator of jobs. Based on a survey of 2,000 Emirati students, Jones concluded that the government’s effort had made them even more convinced of a citizen’s right to a government job and less interested in entrepreneurship. The saw a high-level government job as a deserved reward for the improved education they had received. “Social liberalization does not necessarily mean increased economic productivity,” Ms Jones concluded.

Perhaps, Ms. Jones’ most fundamental finding is a flaw common to the Qatari and UAE as well as the Saudi formula for reform and that is top-down, government engineered change and unilateral rewriting of social contracts produces results that fall short of what is required. The missing element in that formula is exactly what Qatari, Emirati and Saudi leaders eschew: political change.

“Social engineers may need to allow wider political participation if they want pro-globalization social engineering to succeed in the long term. The Emirati kids I studied had grown significantly more interested in contributing to public decision-making compared with their anachronistically educated peers. In other words, top-down social engineering can take authoritarian modernizers only so far,” Ms. Jones said.

“To build truly development-friendly mind-sets prepared to compete under conditions of globalization, Saudi rulers are likely to find that they must renegotiate the social contract in more transparent and inclusive ways, going well beyond what government planning alone can accomplish,” she added.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

Washington and Paris play doubles against Iran

Mohammad Ghaderi

Published

on

Last September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we saw the joint work of Washington and Paris on how to deal with the nuclear question. Trump and Macron decided to launch and lead the “the JCPOA transformation process” using the U.S. Congress. Macron’s remarks on the “possibility of completion of the JCPOA” by including Iran’s missile armaments and new constraints on Iran’s nuclear program were the proofs of this bilateral agreement between the White House and the Elysée Palace.

Following Trump’s controversial speech on the nuclear deal and his two-month time limit to the U.S. Congress to review the JCPOA, Macron continued his negative maneuvers in dealing with Iran’s missile program. But the U.S. Congress could not reach consensus on the matter and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration and the Congress will continue cooperation to revise the JCPOA.

“Now, we’re also working with the Congress to arrive at a new agreement, a new set of conditions for sanctions going forward. The reality is that the nuclear deal was so ill-founded, because it did not deny that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. Being a 10-year agreement, it virtually guaranteed that they would develop a nuclear weapon after that 10-year period. Whether we’ll continue to waive sanctions will be decided soon,” said Pence.

According to the Vice President, the Trump administration and the Congress are drafting a law stating that if Iran ever resumes its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and missile to deliver it, all nuclear sanctions will immediately be imposed against Tehran. About three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron explicitly stated that “the JCPOA” is unchangeable, but he still talks about completing the nuclear deal. What is certain is that completing the nuclear deal means altering this agreement.

Macron himself knows that an annexation, supplementary agreement or even a secondary agreement is a clear breach of the original agreement. In such a situation, the JCPOA will lose its value. There are some points in this regard that need to be addressed.

Firstly, the U.S. officials will first try to agree on a joint plan to “transform the deal”. Over the past two months, Tom Cotton and Bob Corker, two Republican senators, have made great efforts to persuade the Congress to address Donald Trump’s concerns, but they failed in this regard. According to the Cotton-Corker joint plan, Iran’s missile activities will be linked to the nuclear deal, and if the Islamic Republic prevents the IAEA from inspecting its military sites, the deal will automatically be nullified.

Also, according to their plan, the so-called sunset clauses will be removed, and the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be permanent. Democrat Senators believe that the plan will mean the withdrawal of the U.S. from the deal, and therefore they have not agreed with it. Some Republican Senators such as Ron Paul and Jeff Flake are also concerned. Nevertheless, the joint talks between the Congress and the White House on this project continue.

Secondly, the ةlysée Palace is still clinging to the term “completion” of the JCPOA. This is bizarre because Macron also states that the deal is unchangeable, while he wants to incorporate restrictions on Iran’s missiles into the deal.  What is certain is that the slightest change in the nuclear deal means the other party’s failure to fulfill its obligations. In other words, it means the official withdrawal of the P5+1 from the nuclear deal. The insistence on this explicit and decisive stance by the Iranian diplomats can perhaps effectively counterbalance the U.S.-French designs on the JCPOA.

A third point is that it should not be forgotten that Washington and Paris are jointly trying to muck up the nuclear deal. We should not consider Paris and Washington’s game separately. Considering France as a “mediating actor” or “independent actor” would be a mistake. Paris is clearly against the JCPOA and acting as a supporting actor with the U.S. The softer tone of the French authorities should not deceive Iran.

It appears that the French president and his foreign minister are not going to behave in the same way as the previous governments of the country regarding the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the French continue the same approach of former governments regarding peaceful nuclear activities in Iran.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

Continue Reading

Middle East

Who Controls Syria? The Al-Assad family, the Inner Circle, and the Tycoons

Published

on

Ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1971, the three pillars of the Syrian regime have been the Ba’ath Party, the Alawite minority and the army. The current Syrian elites were formed around these three forces. The tip of the pyramid is represented by the so-called inner circle: a small group of people most trusted by the head of state. Their influence on the decision-making process stems not so much from the posts they hold, as from their being members of – or otherwise close to – the al-Assad family. The inner circle has always included separate groups, which can compete against one another.

The military conflict in Syria has affected the structure of the inner circle. In particular, the decision-making process is now influenced by figures who have made their way to the top during the course of the civil war. At the same time, some of Bashar al-Assad’s former confidantes have been forced to flee the country and effectively defect to the opposition.

The Defectors

The latter include, among others, the influential Tlass clan of Circassian origin. Until his death in 2017, the Tlass family was headed by Mustafa Tlass, who was minister of defence from 1972 to 2004 and one of the closest associates of former President Hafez al-Assad. It was Mustafa Tlass who largely facilitated Bashar al-Assad’s inauguration following the death of his father, despite the fact that a portion of the Syrian opposition was calling for Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Assad, to become the new president.

The Tlass clan managed to become Syria’s second-most-influential family after the al-Assads. They were as significant as the Makhlouf clan, relatives of Bashar al-Assad’s mother. Mustafa Tlass’s son, Firas Tlass – one of the most influential Syrian magnates – had interests in many branches of the country’s economy. He was Syria’s second wealthiest person, after Bashar al-Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.

Mustafa and Firas left Syria in 2011 and joined the opposition. Firas Tlass subsequently financed the Farouq Brigades operating in the Tlass family’s native district of Al-Rastan in Homs Governorate. Firas’s younger brother, Manaf Tlass, former Brigadier General of the Syrian Republican Guard’s 105th (other sources say 104th) Brigade, subsequently emigrated to Jordan and attempted to form an opposition military force intended to replace the Syrian armed forces. The project proved a failure.

One other member of the al-Assad family’s inner circle to have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising is Ali Habib Mahmud, another former minister of defence (2009–11). Unlike the Sunni Tlass family, Mahmud is an Alawite. He may be viewed as the highest ranking representative of the Alawite minority to have pledged allegiance to the Syrian revolution. Mahmud initially led the operation to suppress the uprising, and was even subjected to sanctions for this. However, after losing his post he established contact with the militants and left the country.

There are reasons to believe that the Tlass family and Mahmud fled Syria not because of their support for the opposition, per se, but rather due to the alignment of forces within the Syrian leader’s inner circle. Bashar al-Assad’s relatives found a way to get rid of their most influential rivals, accusing them of sympathizing with the opposition and maintaining contacts with them, while criticizing their inability to stifle the uprising. In this situation, the Tlass family and Mahmud had nothing left to do but join the opposition.

The Tlass family and Mahmud may yet theoretically make a return to Syrian politics, as they are seen as acceptable politicians both by the opposition and by some of the Ba’ath functionaries. Everything will depend on the progress and direction of the peace process. If a national accord government is formed, then members of the Tlass family might be appointed ministers. They could even, under certain circumstances, lead this government.

The Explosion of July 18, 2012 as a Political Factor

Another important development that reshaped the inner circle was the explosion at the National Security headquarters in Damascus that took place on July 18, 2012. Liwa al-Islam (now known as Jaysh al-Islam) claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast killed several influential representatives of Al-Assad’s inner circle; the most prominent casualty was Assef Shawkat, husband of Bashar al-Assad’s sister Bushra, who had enjoyed significant clout with the Ba’ath leadership.

Shawkat had been on rather strained terms with some of the al-Assad family members. On the one hand, he was believed to be a close confidant of Bashar al-Assad since his return from London following the death of his brother, Basil Shawkat. On the other hand, Assef was in conflict with Maher al-Assad. According to some reports, Maher had fired a shot at Assef in 1999, wounding him in the stomach. Nevertheless, it was the trio of Assef Shawkat and the al-Assad brothers whom experts named as the central figures of the inner circle. Shawkat held senior official posts in the Syrian government: he was head of Military Intelligence in 2005–10, deputy chief of staff in 2009–11 and, from April 2011 until his death, deputy minister of defence acting as chief of staff of the armed forces.

Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf at the Top of the Pyramid

The flight of the Tlass family and Assef Shawkat’s death promoted Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf to senior roles within the inner circle. The two came to have a decisive say in the decision-making process, despite the fact that they do not hold key posts in the government.

Maher al-Assad is currently described as the second most important figure in Syria after the president. He is the de-facto commander of the 4th Armoured Division (Maher’s official military post is that of commander of the division’s 42nd Brigade, whereas the division is officially commanded by Major General Mohammad Ali Durgham), and also supervises the Republican Guard, the elite force charged with guarding government installations and defending the capital city.

Apart from holding command posts and being represented in the central committee of the Ba’ath Party, Maher al-Assad is a financial magnate. According to some reports, he earned up to $1 billion supplying food to the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, and further increased his wealth through a money-laundering scheme involving the Lebanese bank Al-Madina, which subsequently folded. Sources have indicated that Maher controls the Sheraton hotel network in Syria and certain media outlets, including Cham Press. This means that, in addition to the loyal 4 th Division and the Republican Guard, Maher al-Assad commands significant financial influence.

Maher is on rather difficult terms with Rami Makhlouf, another influential member of Bashar al-Assad’s current inner circle. The two may be partners on certain projects: it is known that they used to do business together in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. In other situations, however, they may be seen as rivals.

One of Maher al-Assad’s important partners is believed to be Muhammad Hamsho, who represents his interests in the business community. The latter is involved in financing a range of pro-government media outlets, such as Addounia TV, and owns Hamsho International Group, as well as stakes in Middle East Marketing, Syria International for Artistic Production and Al-Sham Holding. Hamsho also acts as the middleman for the business structures of Maher al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.

Overall, Maher al-Assad is a fairly independent actor. He can afford to openly express his disagreement with Bashar al-Assad’s decisions and is capable of imposing his own views on the president. Maher is the main advocate of the “party of war” in Damascus. He is also named as one of the key conduits of Iran’s interests in the Syrian leadership. Maher reportedly has contacts with the Iranian special services, and is reported to have voiced the idea to involve Iranian military experts in the early phase of the Syrian conflict. In addition, the military units under Maher’s control are being used to form branches of Shiite paramilitary forces. For example, the Shiite battalion Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi operates as part as the 4th Division.

Maher’s contacts with Iran previously provided grounds for rumours disseminated by pro-opposition sources about his conflicts with Bashar al-Assad. In 2016, reports began circulating which alleged that Maher al-Assad had been dismissed as commander of the 42nd Brigade, promoted to major general and assigned a secondary role within the General Staff. Sources explained that the “honorary exile” was the result of an alleged quarrel between the brothers. In January 2017, rumours emerged accusing Maher of an attempted military coup against the president with the support of Iran, allegedly over Maher’s disagreement with the Syrian leadership’s course towards joining the peace process and initiating talks with the opposition. However, in summer 2017, Maher al-Assad was sighted commanding the 4th Division during an operation in Daraa Governorate in the south of Syria.

Nevertheless, the very existence of rumours alleging a conflict between the al-Assad brothers does reflect certain concerns. Namely, that should the peace process reach a stage at which it will be necessary to form a national accord government, the hardliners and the Ba’ath conservatives maintaining contacts with Iran might roll out Maher as their candidate. Maher al-Assad has the necessary clout with the security agencies, commands serious financial resources and, most importantly, is prepared to make any sacrifice in order to secure his goals, as he has repeatedly demonstrated in the past, including in the form of cruel reprisals of civilians during the first phase of the Syrian revolution.

The next most significant and influential actor in Syria after Maher al-Assad is Rami Makhlouf, the country’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of $6 billion. Makhlouf co-owns Syria’s largest mobile network operator Syriatel and the corporation Cham Holding. The latter used to control the most profitable services in the country, including hotels, restaurants, tour operators and the air carrier Syrian Pearl Airlines. Makhlouf is also a major shareholder in a number of banking institutions, including International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank and Bank of Jordan in Syria. The Makhlouf family is known to have close ties with UK business. In particular, they have invested in the British oil and gas exploration and production company Gulfsands Petroleum. Rami Makhlouf also controls such media outlets as Al-Watan, Ninar, Dünya TV and Promedia. According to some estimates, he controls up to 60 percent of the country’s economy.

Despite the sanctions imposed against him, Rami Makhlouf is using his connections, influence and resources to seek ways for the al-Assad family and other representatives of the ruling circles to bypass the international sanctions. For this purpose, he has been using three Syrian companies linked to the government: Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. Rami has also used the Panama-based legal firm Mossack Fonseca to open shadow companies in the Seychelles. He is also using his Eastern European companies, DOM Development Holding of Poland and Rock Holding of Romania, to the same end.

The Al-Bustan Association

An important component of the Makhlouf empire is the Al-Bustan Association, which was set up as a charity fund intended to address the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian civil war. The association is known to have received payments from UNICEF to the tune of $267,933. In reality, Al-Bustan has turned into the primary source of financing for different Shabiha paramilitary units unrelated to the official Syrian security agencies. In effect, Rami Makhlouf is using Al-Bustan to set up private military companies controlled by himself. The most prominent such units are Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) and the Fahud Homs (the Leopards of Homs) special units. It is believed that by bankrolling these forces, which are linked to the Air Force intelligence service, Rami Makhlouf has secured his own positions within the latter. He thus took advantage of the civil war to develop all the requisite attributes of personal influence, primarily financial resources and a personal army.

Rami Makhlouf may be characterized as a proponent of the peace process, as he is interested in having his frozen assets abroad released and the Western sanctions against him lifted, but this will only become possible if he makes a personal contribution to the peaceful settlement of the conflict. He has already filed an appeal with the Swiss courts. On the other hand, it is obvious that Makhlouf’s financial welfare will largely depend on whether the current Syrian regime stays in power.

The Father of the Desert Hawks

One Syrian actor worth mentioning among those who have managed to strengthen their positions during the course of the internal conflict and can influence the Syrian leadership’s decisions is Ayman Jaber.

An oil tycoon, Jaber used to control oil and gas extraction at most of the fields located in government-controlled territories, and held a de-facto monopoly on oil supplies to the state. He also chairs the Syrian council on metallurgy and is a shareholder in a number of businesses alongside Rami Makhlouf and other Syrian tycoons. To protect his field, Jaber runs numerous private military companies. Some of these have been turned into elite assault units, including Liwa Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks) and the Syrian Marines. The two units were previously commanded by Ayman Jaber’s brothers, Mohamed (who also has a business in Russia) and Ibrahim. At some point, the independence enjoyed by these groups became excessive. In summer 2017, the Desert Hawks stopped a governmental convoy from entering an area under their control. This incident resulted in Ibrahim Jaber’s arrest. The Desert Hawks were disbanded and reassigned to the 5th Voluntary Assault Corps and to the Syrian Commandos, which are financed by Ayman Jaber.

Another influential Syrian oil magnate close to the country’s leadership is George Haswani, who owns the company HESCO. Haswani finances Dir’ al-Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield Forces), which is a part of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Armoured Division. Turkey and Western powers are accusing Haswani of having sold oil extracted by so-called Islamic State from seized Syrian fields. He is also linked to Russian business circles and has contacts with Stroytransgaz and Gazprom. According to some reports, he holds Russian citizenship.

The Old Guard and the Special Services

Representatives of the so-called Old Guard (who were close to the previous president of Syria) and also special services continue to have a modicum of influence on the decision-making process within the country. One influential veteran of Syrian politics is 77-year-old Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Muallem, who served as Syrian ambassador to the United States during the final years of Hafez al-Assad’s presidency.

Standing out from the other heads of Syria’s numerous security agencies is Ali Mamlouk, former head of the General Security Directorate (GSD). He retained his influence in the GSD following his appointment as head of the National Security Bureau, which coordinates the work of Syria’s entire intelligence community, in 2012. A number of sources report that Mamlouk is an experienced politician who manages to manoeuvre delicately between Russia and Iran and secure support for his initiatives from both countries. In addition, he is the only member of the Syrian leadership with whom the Gulf monarchies and Turkey are prepared to talk. Mamlouk is trusted to conduct sensitive talks behind closed doors with external opponents of the Syrian regime. These opponents view the head of the Syrian special services, who is also a Sunni, as a person with whom they can negotiate. It is noteworthy that Mamlouk visited Saudi Arabia in 2015.

Elements of Matriarchy

Women are also a force in the decision-making process in Syria. Anisa Makhlouf, the late mother of Bashar and Maher al-Assad, certainly played a significant part in keeping the ruling family in balance and mitigating disagreements between the two brothers. Some observers note that the relationship between the men started to deteriorate after Anisa’s death in early 2016.

Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife, is also believed to have had some influence on her spouse, but the level of that influence remains unclear. It is known, however, that Asma has founded numerous NGOs and funds used, among other things, to process money transferred by international organizations to support the victims of the Syrian conflict, despite the fact that she was under sanctions. Another influential woman in the al-Assad family, Assef Shawkat’s widow Bushra, also retains some influence and has business ties with Rami Makhlouf.

Possible Transformation of the Political Architecture?

All the main threats to the Syrian regime have been staved off by now. However, it must be noted that this was possible thanks exclusively to external interventions. Russia and Iran played a key role in keeping the al-Assad family and their closest associates in power. Without the participation of these two countries, the armed confrontation would most likely have resulted in the toppling of the regime.

On the other hand, the regime may wave won the war, but it has not yet won peace. All the problems that caused the revolution in the first place only worsened in the course of the war, including runaway corruption and the concentration of capital in the hands of a small group of people. Unless serious and comprehensive reforms are carried out in Syria, the country may well face collapse and a new wave of violence.

On the other hand, no actual reforms appear possible for as long as the al-Assad family remains in control. The only things possible are half-measures and window dressing. It therefore appears advisable to proceed from the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including as applicable to the formation of a new executive body.

The most agreeable scenario might be to transform Syria into a parliamentary republic and strip the head of state of a significant portion of powers and access to administrative levers. Whatever the case, any positive change will be difficult to implement without the full involvement of the opposition, including armed opposition factions, seeing as there are otherwise no factors that might prompt the government to carry out tangible reforms.

First published in our partner RIAC

Continue Reading

Middle East

Surrendering a Brussels mosque: A Saudi break with ultra-conservatism?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

Saudi Arabia, in an indication that it is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, has agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels.

The decision follows mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators as well as social reforms in the kingdom introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a lifting of the ban on women’s driving, the granting of women’s access to male sporting events and introduction of modern forms of entertainment.

Relinquishing control of the mosque reportedly strokes with a Saudi plan to curtail support for foreign mosques and religious and cultural institutions that have been blamed for sprouting radicalism. With few details of the plan known, it remains unclear what the curtailing entails.

It also remains unclear what effect it would have. A report published last month by the Royal Danish Defence College and three Pakistani think tanks concluded that madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan, a hotbed of militant religious education, were no longer dependent on foreign funding. It said that foreign funding accounted for a mere seven percent of the income of madrassas in the country.

Like with Prince Mohammed’s vow last November to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined “moderate” form of Islam, its too early to tell what the Brussels decision and the social reforms mean beyond trying to improve the kingdom’s tarnished image and preparing it for a beyond-oil, 21st century economic and social existence.

The decision would at first glance seem to be primarily a public relations move and an effort to avoid rattling relations with Belgium and the European Union given that the Brussels mosque is the exception that confirms the rule. It is one of a relatively small number of Saudi-funded religious, educational and cultural institutions that was managed by the kingdom.

The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s four decades-long, $100 billion public diplomacy campaign, the single largest in history, aimed at countering post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal, operated independently.

By doing so, Saudi Arabia has let a genie out of the bottle that it not only cannot control, but that also leads an independent life of its own. The Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative environment has also produced groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that have turned on the kingdom.

Relinquishing control of the Brussels mosque allows Saudi Arabia to project itself as distancing itself from its roots in ultra-conservatism that date back to an 18th century power sharing arrangement between the Al Saud family and Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, a preacher whose descendants are at the core of the kingdom’s religious establishment.

The decision, Prince Mohammed’s initial social reforms, and plans to cut funding notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia appears to be making less of clean break on the frontlines of its confrontation with Iran where support for ultra-conservative and/or militant groups is still the name of the game.

Saudi Arabia said last month that it would open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen was sparked by its conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, that dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s and early this century.

Saudi militants reported in the last year that Saudi nationals of Baloch origin were funnelling large amounts of money into militant madrassas in the Pakistani province of Balochistan on the border with Iran. Saudi-funded ultraconservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate the region’s educational landscape.

The money flowed, although it was not clear whether the Saudi donors had tacit government approval, at a time that Saudi Arabia is toying with the idea of seeking to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its multiple minorities, including the Baloch.

A militant Islamic scholar, who operates militant madrassas in the triangle where the borders of Balochistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet, was last year named a globally designated terrorist by the US Treasury while he was fundraising in the kingdom.

Algerian media reports last month detailed Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as the representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

The decision to relinquish control of the Brussels mosque that in 1969 had been leased rent-free to the kingdom for a period of 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin followed a Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed. The inquiry advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism, estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported that “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith.”

Saudi Arabia has worked hard in the last year to alter perceptions of its Islamic-inspired beliefs.

Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister and secretary general of the World Muslim League, the group that operates the Brussels mosque and has served for half a century as a key funding vehicle for ultra-conservatism insisted on a visited last year to the Belgian capital that Islam “cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Mr. Al-Issa, in a first in a country that long distributed copies of the Protocols of Zion, an early 20th century anti-Semitic tract, last month, expressed last month on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates Nazi persecution of the Jews “great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”

Mr. Al-Issa’s comments no doubt also signalled ever closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, who both bitterly oppose Iran’s regional influence. Nonetheless, they constituted a radical rupture in Saudi Arabia, where Islamic scholars, often described Jews  as “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.”

Continue Reading

Latest

Newsletter

Trending

Copyright © 2018 Modern Diplomacy